I hesitate to mention this to anyone, because I know they're bound to say: (a) she fell asleep in the hayloft again; (b) must have been that leftover rum eggnog in her coffee cup; or (c) looks like it's time to check out adult day care.
But I wasn't dreaming, tipsy or hallucinating.
I was fully awake, wielding pitchfork and rake with my usual expertise while humming "O'er the fields we go," (off key) when I heard a voice behind me gently scold, "One week 'til Christmas and all you've bought so far is a box of marshmallow snowmen. And it's my guess they'll never see wrapping paper."
"Well, you've got to have some incentive to kick-start a shopping trip for a family our size," I retorted, whirling around to find myself face to forelock with an enormous chestnut horse wearing an iridescent Santa hat.
"Girlfriend, a six-horse trailer chock full of peppermint angels won't help get you in gear unless you pull on your galloping boots and hit the mall right this minute," he said with a snort.
"Whoa! Two things," I retorted in shock. "First, as you can see, I'm a little busy to be out 'hitting' the mall. And, second, I'm a really terrific shopper once I get going, so don't worry about it. Besides, I'm not paying any attention to what you say because you're not even real."
"Real is relative, sugar lump," he answered, draping a hoof casually over my shoulder.
"You see, I'm the Ghost of Christmas Presents, your dream pony come true. For about two centuries now it's been my job to give horsefolk a leg up on their Yuletide shopping. Not all of them, mind you, just the most hopeless cases. Although, come to think of it, that's just about all of them.
"Talk about your job security," he added thought-fully. "And for more holidays than I care to tally-ho--I mean up--I've watched you flailing around at the last minute in search of suitable gifts for relatives who don't share your passion for slinging straw. And, frankly, sweetcakes, every year your batting average has been at the bottom of the oat bin."
"That is so not true," I lied.
"Oh sure, trotting down to the tack shop at a quarter to Santa's touch-down might work when you're buying gifts for--would I be politically correct to say 'your kind'? But when it comes to choosing for family and friends who don't know how to cinch a girth, you're clueless," he finished, tapping one hoof impatiently.
"I am not! I'll have you know I have a whole raft of relatives who aren't horsefolk, and they loved their gifts last year. Besides, I don't need any advice from some cow-hocked illusion, so get lost!" I retorted, stamping my own foot for good measure.
"Temper, temper," soothed the equine incubus. "Remember, you're talking to the old record-keeper. Besides, I'm here to help, not hinder. So, even if you think I'm just a Mustang mirage, how 'bout giving me free rein to get on with my assignment? I have a reputation to protect here, you know. So, I'll talk, you shovel," he said, sitting back on his considerable haunches.
Your Reputation Precedes You
"For starters, I've been around the paddock long enough to understand how difficult it is for honest-to-goodness horsefolk to take time out for Christmas--you know, fixing meals that require actually turning on the stove and entertaining relatives who think a running martingale is a bird that can't fly," he explained.
"Don't be silly," I snapped, adding another scoop to my overloaded wheelbarrow. "I love Christmas. It's just that I'm too busy to be wandering around a bunch of stores for hours on end."
"Oh yeah," the mirage answered, wrinkling his nose. "Like I haven't heard every excuse about holiday shopping since the beginning of time. If you think it's oh so hard to find that perfect pair of earrings at the mall in mid-December, just try digging up some frankincense and myrrh at 11:55 p.m. on Christmas Eve!
"Well, it wasn't as if I didn't know I'd run into this with you, because, quite honestly, your reputation precedes you in the Elf Helper ranks. So, believe me, when your name came up on my 'to-do' list, don't think it was an alfalfa moment for me, either. You're a full-time mission, if you want to know the truth," he huffed, tossing his forelock.
"Look, I appreciate your, uh, appearance, and your willingness to help, but I really don't need it," I said primly, moving through him toward the next stall. And then I assured him that last year I'd finished shopping in plenty of time to wrap everything, and I was confident every single gift was appreciated.
"Get real. You kept the hardware store open an hour after closing time by promising to buy new latches for all your stalls. You didn't finish wrapping until 3 in the morning, and when you ran out of red-and-green paper, you tucked your mother-in-law's gift in a sweet-feed sack and tied it with baling twine," Santa's uppity helper recalled.
"She thought it was very creative," I sniffed.
"No, she thought the gift was very creative, although I believe the gracious term she used was 'novel,' since never once in her 78 years had she put a curb chain on her wish list."
"Well, that's your opinion. Besides, after I put a clasp on it I thought it made a pretty darned interesting bracelet for someone who has every piece of jewelry known to man."
The big chestnut rolled his eyes: "This is going to be even harder than I anticipated. Since I really have to be back up north before New Year's, I need to move along on this assignment. That means we need to address Christmas 2005, as compared to Christmas 2004," he announced officiously, snatching a list out of a saddlebag with his teeth.
Get Him What He Really Wants
"First, for your husband, who falls between the cracks of 'horse person' and 'putting up with horse person.' Meaning that he rides on occasion but doesn't get up at 4 a.m. to go cubbing and has never chosen to go hunting over being maid of honor in his sister's wedding," the chestnut chimera said, pursing his oversized lips.
"Priorities," I muttered.
"Whatever. Anyway, this year for your main squeeze, deep six the fiberglass wheelbarrow, post-hole digger and aluminum gate--as if we can't guess who really wants those little goodies under her tree. Instead, spring for a cruise for two to the sunny Caribbean. But this year you go along, instead of sending his mother, like you did last year. That was w-a-a-a-a-y over the top," he said sternly.
"I'm better on dry land, so I was only thinking of him. I mean, would you like to spend 10 days with someone who spent nine of them hanging over the railing, and not because they were enjoying the view?" I defended myself.
"Besides, that took care of two gifts with one stone. Well, you know what I mean."
"I'm a spirit, so, yes, I know exactly what you mean," he answered.
"Now, for your father-in-law, forget the singing toothbrush and the blinking socks and stick to something you know he'll appreciate."
"I did that last year with the cruise. He said it was the most relaxing 10 days he'd had in 45 years," I argued.
"But you sent your mother-in-law!" exclaimed the annoying phantom.
He cleared his throat and nodded. "Moving on: I understand that because, once again you waited until the last moment to order 'unique' food baskets for the final eight relatives on your list," he recalled, in an unnecessarily haughty tone of voice.
"So? They all arrived before Christmas Day so people could share them with company. Plus, they were very unique and, therefore, very thoughtful gifts," I replied.
"Unique doesn't quite describe them. Not everyone likes macadamia-crusted moose or frosted sushi," he said, shaking his head mournfully.
"I got them because they were special. Besides, the wasabi paste was excellent on crackers," I retorted.
"It could have revived the recently departed," he argued. "And you got those particular baskets because that's all they had left in stock. Gee, I wonder why?" the smarty spectral simpered.
"You know, you're very unattractive when you make that face," I snapped.
"OK, OK, the clock's running and we're not halfway to the eighth pole, so listen up," he warned.
"Because I'm known around the globe as the guru of ghostly gift-giving," he smirked, managing to prance and preen in place, "and because I'm the equine expert on the gift-giving habits of horsefolk who'd rather wear Manalo Blhaniks to muck stalls than spend an afternoon in the mall, listen up to my professional recommendations," he ordered, peering through a dashing pair of pinto-spotted pince-nez.
"This year, forget anything that needs feeding, pruning, trimming, watering, brushing, walking, assembling, polishing or parboiling. In other words, think gift certificates--period," he ordered.
"Hmm," I more or less acknowledged while I finished sprinkling straw.
"Hmmmmm??? Am I talking in clicks here?" the chestnut asked. "I'm offering my professional opinion. I'm relieving you of wandering the aisles like the Ghost of Christmas Past. But this is what happens every year dealing with your kind. On the other hoof, that's why I get the big bucks," he remembered.
"Actually," I said, turning to the overwrought wraith. "I'm going to take your advice. And you can tell your boss you've been a big help. A little cranky, maybe, but all in all, a terrific problem-solver."
"Well, thank you!" said the chestnut as he began evaporating before my very eyes.
"Oh, just one more thing: If you'd really like to leave Santa a little something for all his efforts, forget the cookies. Last year they looked very festive, but they started giving him pretty bad indigestion by the time he got over Cleveland. I think it was the anchovies. This year, how 'bout a bucket of alfalfa
pellets for the team? We both know it's what you do best."